Via Orlando, back when Irene's was place to be

29 November 2019 - 09:32
By Sam Mathe

Condry Ziqubu's Via Orlando [1985] is among the hits that epitomised the flowering of township pop in the eighties.

A little known fact is that the monster hit was inspired by a nondescript but popular address in Orlando East. For at least three decades the house on Kunene Street was one of the busiest in Soweto and its fame had spread beyond the country's borders.

At its peak, Irene's Place was the ultimate destination for the cream of black society.

Doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers brushed shoulders with soccer stars, radio personalities, journalists, beauty queens and musicians at Irene Mothei's home.

Even overseas artists like the O'Jays once graced the place with their presence.

The fact that it was at some stage just a two-roomed matchbox house didn't deter well-heeled and respectable patrons, some of whom travelled from far-flung dorpies and villages across the country. The allure of the place would also not dimmed by the frequent police raids and arrests of the host and her well-groomed customers.

She kept the troublesome tsotsi elements at bay by insisting on a strict dress code. "Entry was on condition that male patrons wear three-piece suits and that was not negotiable. Those with Brentwood pants could enter provided the trousers didn't have turn-ups," she remarks matter-of-factly as if she was talking about the necessity of warm coats in winter.

Takkies [sneakers], sporty hats and caps were also banned.

These outfits were associated with the pantsula, a township type with a taste for expensive clothes but a reputation for criminal behaviour. Irene's was a haven for the ivies or hippies, the pantsulas' opposite number.

The joint was opened in 1976, a decade when fashionable wear for gentlemen included bellbottom trousers and platform shoes, chiffon scarves and all.

Football personalities Ewert "The Lip" Nene and Kaizer Motaung were among those whose dress sense exemplified the classic 1970s look.

When Irene started operating in the spring of that tragic year, the flames of the student riots had subsided but the embers of grief were palpable.

"People needed an outlet to deal with the pain of loss and depression," she explains. "Here they could relax over a few cold ones and laugh their sorrows away."

Football was one of the favourite shebeen topics but Irene remembers that the debates were also becoming intensely political. She recalls that the Carlton City bombing was discussed under her roof.

Thirty-year-old Wellington Tshazibane was an Oxford graduate and mining engineer who died in police custody at the notorious John Vorster Police Station in Johannesburg during the student uprisings.

He was the seventh black detainee to die in detention on December 11 1976, just two days after his arrest.

At the time i of his death Tshazibane was employed in a research laboratory of mining giant Anglo-American.

He was accused of having provided the chemicals used in the bombing of a restaurant at the Carlton Centre and detained without trial under the Terrorism Act.

On December 7 1976, the bomber, Isaac Siko, 27, had blown off his right hand during the operation of the homemade device which injured about 16 white patrons.

Before the restaurant incident, Siko had reportedly bombed a surgery in Soweto owned by a white doctor.

The motive, he explained, was to test the effectiveness of his handmade explosives and to highlight to the apartheid authorities the dire living conditions of township folk.

A former Wits University student, Siko was working at the De Beers Diamond Research Laboratory in Johannesburg when he was arrested. He was found guilty of terrorist activities and sentenced to 12 years on Robben Island.

After serving his sentence Siko eventually worked for the ANC-led government, including as a group executive manager at the Defence, Science and Technology Institute.

In 2012, the 63-year-old anti-apartheid activist committed suicide at his home in Hammanskraal, Pretoria, by shooting himself in the head.

His colleague, Johannes "Ryder" Mofokeng, 26, was arrested on the grounds that he was the one who gave Siko the chemicals that were used to manufacture the bomb.

After six months in solitary confinement at John Vorster and having appeared in various courts around the country, Mofokeng was acquitted and went on to make a name for himself in football as one of the country's best defenders and Kaizer Chiefs' longest-serving captain.

Irene, 74, says Mofokeng's boss, Kaizer Motaung, as well as Jomo Sono and Stanley "Screamer" Tshabalala were regulars at her shebeens.

"They took care of the troublemakers. It was always wise for a patron who was asked to leave to do so without arguments otherwise, he would land in serious trouble with those ones."

Another regular was Phil Molefe, who was a reporter at The Star. He appointed himself master of ceremonies at her events, especially during her birthday -April 27 - a role he still plays.

Born in Orlando East, Soweto, Irene's parents could be described as middle class by township standards and very strict. Her mother was a nurse and her father had an administrative position at the Johannesburg City Council.

Her paternal uncle, Isaac "Rocks of London" Mothei, was among the first generation of Orlando Pirates players when the club was registered in 1937.

"He came from Brandfort in the Free State, where my father was born. He came to live with us when I was just a toddler and took care of me like I was his own child," she says.

She went to Orlando West High, also popularly known as Matseke, after its founding principal, composer and author, Dr Solomon Matseke.

His pupils included musicians Marah Louw and Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, whom he motivated to excel academically but also encouraged to follow their dreams as artists.

Irene sang as a leader at the morning assemblies and in the senior school choir.

"Our principal [Matseke] told me I had a beautiful soprano and recommended me to Khabi Mngoma. That's how I joined his choir, the Ionian Music Society," says Irene.

Professor Mngoma was a respected composer, conductor and teacher of choral music. He formed the Ionian Music Society in 1959 initially as a male vocal choir with the purpose of improving the standard of choral singing in the black community.

A ladies choir followed later and the two eventually merged into a mixed choir with instrumental accompaniment.

At the Ionians she sang with seasoned choristers like Urbania Mothopeng, wife of erstwhile PAC president Zephania Mothopeng, and grandmother of conductor and cellist, Kutlwano Masote.

After school she found a job as a personal assistant of top management of the Johannesburg City Council. Irene says the decision to get involved in the liquor selling business happened by pure chance.

"After divorcing the father of my two boys in 1975, a friend told me that selling liquor was a profitable business and suggested I give it serious thought," she says.

She says Charmaine Modjadji, another friend who was a music promoter with record labels Gallo and WEA, helped her start the business.

"My parents were not happy but I promised them to run the business with the strictest of ethical standards.

"I'm grateful that my sons, whom I raised single-handedly, have grown up to become respectful and responsible men."

Her sons are both married and have rewarded her with four grandchildren. Her place was a strictly adults-only establishment where disrespectful behaviour was swiftly dealt with.

She attributes its success and popularity to the no-nonsense approach she says she inherited from her parents.

Following the June 16 uprisings a number of activists decided to leave the country.

Neighbouring Botswana was the gateway to exile and she recalls that some of these people would discuss their escape plans in her house.

George Phahle, 47, was one of them.

"In December 1976, George and his wife, Lindiwe, 47, slept on my verandah and the following day they left the country," she says.

Phahle came from a prominent family of schoolteachers in Alexandra. He worked as a salesman in Soweto.

In exile, his wife worked as a social worker while he operated a transport service between Gaborone and Lobatse.

The couple was among the eight South African and 12 others who were murdered in the infamous raid on the exile community of Gaborone on June 14 1985 by the South African Defence Force.

Another well-known casualty was Thami Mnyele, a graphic artist who hailed from Tembisa, Ekurhuleni.

It was just a matter of time before the special branch got wind of the fact that her house was more than just a place of drinking and dancing.

"One day they came for me. I was taken to John Vorster and interrogated about activists discussing politics in my house. I firmly told them that I was not aware or interested in what patrons talked about. I was too busy running a business," Irene says.

Two days later she was released and the music played on. One of her fondest memories was dancing in her yard with Jimmy Cliff. The Jamaican-born reggae star was in town for that historic 1980 concert at Orlando Stadium.

She also remembers arriving at her home to find some revellers dancing like demons.

One of them was a short white man from America. "His name was Paul Simon and he was brought by Sipho Mabuse," she says

The former Harari drummer was helping Simon to find musicians for his Graceland project. That was 1985, the same year Ziqubu, another ex-Harari member and guitarist, released that song.

"Irene's Place was such a vibey place a lot of South African hits were first played there. Via Orlando was one of them and it was definitely inspired by the celebratory atmosphere Irene created at her place," Ziqubu remembers.

During the Mandela years the place became one of Soweto's most popular tourist destinations. But in 1998 she called it quits.

The closure undoubtedly marked the end of a fascinating chapter in the history of the vibrant township.